Canberra - Dozens of Australian journalists are facing possible charges for allegedly breaching a reporting ban on the trial and conviction of Cardinal George Pell, who was found guilty of sexually molesting two choirboys, lawyers and local media have said.
Reporting in any format accessible from Australia of details of Pell's proceedings was banned by a Melbourne judge's suppression order to prevent a second trial from being influenced by the verdict of the prior proceedings.
Pell was convicted in the first trial in December but the verdict was made public Tuesday after prosecutors decided - largely due to a lack of evidence - not to go ahead with the second trial.
The subsequent reporting has shifted international attention to Australia's use of such orders.
Victoria's Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) sent letters in early February threatening to charge the journalists with breaching the order and for contempt of court relating to reporting on the Pell case.
Breaching a suppression order carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
When asked on Friday about the letters to the journalists, Anthony Loncaric, a spokesman for the Office of Public Prosecutions, told dpa: "We won't be making comment."
Australian broadcaster ABC confirmed it received a letter from the DPP. A spokesperson would not be drawn, however, on how many letters were received.
"We stand by all of our coverage and our actions in this matter. We have responded to the DPP strongly contesting any suggestion of wrongdoing on our part," the spokesperson told dpa via email.
Nine, which owns private television Channel Nine, as well as several broadsheet newspapers including Melbourne's The Age, also confirmed that it had received the DPP letters.
"We are not officially commenting beyond providing that information," spokeswoman Miranda Ward told dpa on Friday.
Earlier, The Age said 30 Nine journalists had received the letters.
According to an analysis by Australian media monitoring firm Streem almost 150 global news media reported the guilty verdict within 24 hours of Pell's conviction on December 11 and most were accessible to Australians via social media or search engines.
A number of local news organizations, including the Herald Sun newspaper and the Daily Telegraph, published front-page stories saying there was a major case that could not be reported.
The Age also reported that a "high-profile figure" had been convicted of a serious crime.
Lawyer Justin Quill, who is representing journalists from Nine and other organizations, said the "virtually identical" letters represent a scatter-gun approach and threatening so many journalists without specifics is "inappropriate and disturbing," The Age reported.
Pedestrian TV, owned by Nine, published the letters from the public prosecution office, expressing the intent "to institute proceedings for contempt against you. "
The letters say that any publication while the second trial was ongoing "breaches the suppression order, has a definite and real tendency to interfere with the administration of justice and therefore constitutes sub judice contempt."
The letters also say that such publication "is contemptuous by reason of it scandalising the Court," as well as "aided and abetted contempts by overseas media."
"While the prosecutors do not have to act on it, and it might go away, there is a... likelihood that the legal proceedings mean dozens of journalists face possible jail," a legal expert who wished to remain anonymous told dpa.
Jason Bosland, an associate professor of media and law at the University of Melbourne, said he thinks it is "unprecedented," that so many journalists received the notice at the same time.
"Local media occasionally get asked to explain by the judge or the public prosecution office, but not in this volume at the same time."
"I felt the media in Australian, as a whole, were respectful of the Pell process. But, some outlets attempted to push the boundaries a bit. From that perspective, I am not surprised that the letters have been sent," Bosland told dpa Friday.
Pell, the Vatican's former treasurer, is the highest-ranking Catholic to be convicted of child sexual abuse.dpa